Toward Excellence in Technology Education
By LaPorte, James E
Excellence in our profession comes as a result of the collective work of us all, applying our unique talents and abilities, for the benefit of the whole, including the people we serve. Text of a speech delivered at the FTE Spirit of Excellence breakfast in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Good morning! What an honor it is for me to have been selected to speak to this group of honorees and colleagues this morning. As I look out into the audience, I see some of my former students at all levels-undergraduate through doctorate. I also see people with whom I have worked over the years, including former colleagues and current colleagues. I would particularly like to recognize my friends from Finland, Mikko and Matti. I also see some people who have the goods on me-and others on whom I have the goods. Most important, I am very pleased to share the moment with those who are being honored this morning, those upon whom the future of our profession rests.
When some of my friends learned that I was going to deliver this speech, they kidded about whether it was going to be my “swan song” since I am clearly now a senior member of this great profession. Growing up in Montana where I knew few swans, I decided to check out what this means-after pretending that I already knew. The use of the term is in reference to an ancient belief that the Mute Swan is completely mute during its lifetime, except for singing a single, heartbreakingly beautiful song just before it dies. Trust me, this is not my swan song because I have never been very mute and I am incapable of singing at all, except for a few unmentionable occasions. However, if I do start singing, please call 911!
The Spirit of Excellence . . . this typified Donald Maley in all that he did. But what does excellence mean? I reviewed a number of resources on the subject such as Peters and Waterman’s, In Search of Excellence, in which they identified a number of companies that were exemplary. I also looked at C. P. Snow’s work, Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. I listened more intently to sermons on Sundays. I also reviewed Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Dilbert comic strips, and some back issues of Mad Magazine. In other words, I turned over a lot of rocks in search of the message I wanted to share with you this morning. I found little under those rocks that seemed to fit the occasion just right, so what I want to share with you are basically reflections on our profession and my life in it.
The root of the word “excellence” comes from the Latin and means to rise above. So, does excellence mean to do better than others? Does it mean that we should aspire to be better teachers than our colleagues in other subject areas? Does it mean to work harder? Does it mean to work smarter? To tell others about the good work we do? To respect the work of others? To value diversity? Excellence means all these things and more. Excellence is not a goal that is ever reached; it is an ongoing process. In fact, nearly one-third of the exemplary companies cited in the In Search of Excellence book were in financial trouble five years after the book was printed. Exemplifying excellence as a process, our own ITEA President Andy Stephenson includes the quote, “If better is possible, then good is not enough,” in the byline of his correspondence.
As individuals, we cannot excel in all that we do. Some of us are excellent teachers, while others are good or average. Some of us excel in political action, while others dislike that sort of activity. Some of us know how to toot our own horns, while others are too humble to do so, even to a fault. Excellence in our profession comes as a result of the collective work of us all, applying our unique talents and abilities for the benefit of the whole, including the people we serve. So the breadth of excellence is indeed vast, and it can never be fully reached. Permit me, then, to focus on just a few aspects of excellence about which I feel passionate.
That word passionate-it is a good word for what I want to say this morning for it clearly implies human feelings. It is a word that was apparent in what I have read and observed about excellence. One could argue that for us to excel, it is a necessary precondition to be passionate about what we are doing. Passionate means that we have strong emotions and desire about what we do. Passionate means that we love what we do.
With this brief introduction, I want you to do some reflection. How did you get interested in technology in the first place? Was it a person who influenced you, or was it some experience that you had in your interactions with the artifacts of technology? Or was it some other factor? Given your interest in technology, who or what influenced you to pursue a career as an educator? Was it a person? Was it an experience? Was it the lesser of the evils? Was it a feeling of personal security that you felt you would derive from teaching?
Have you thanked the people who influenced and supported you in your career? Think about those people now. Visit them, call them, or write them if you have not thanked them. Do it as soon as you are able. I want to send you on a guilt trip about this, because if you do not thank the people who were significant influences on your life and the excellence you have achieved, then you have not upheld your responsibility in fostering excellence in our field. Though I did not know Don Maley very well, I felt honored that he knew me by name. I value the personal discussions that I had with him. I also regret that I did not thank him for his contributions to my life.
In any case, I am sure that there are as many influences in career decisions as there are individuals in this room. I must tell you, in all honesty, that my interest in technology sets me on the cutting edge of this field, as it is directly related to biotechnology. Yes, I got interested in technology through constipation! Let me tell you the story. When I was very young, I was always constipated. My mother tried many remedies to get me to spend the necessary time for the correct biological phenomena to occur, to no avail. Then one day she noticed that I was very interested in Popular Science magazine. So she restricted my reading of Popular Science only to those times when I was sitting on the toilet. Now you can only imagine, from your study of psychology, what happens when I see a Popular Science magazine in the grocery store! It is a true story, though.
As a result of being “passionate” about Popular Science magazine, I decided I wanted to be a scientist. It was many years later that I realized that Popular Science was a misnomer and should have been called Popular Technology. In fact, it is clearly still misnamed, and the Editor continues this misinformation as evidenced by what he wrote about science in the November 2007 issue. And I was misguided in my career development. How many young people today are misguided by the improper use of the terms technology and “science”?
So where do we start with increasing the excellence in our field? The first thing that I feel we should do in our pursuit of excellence is to be proud of who we are and the field of which we are a part. But are we really proud of our accomplishments and who we are? How often have you heard a colleague say, “I am just a technology education teacher.” Maybe you have said the same thing yourself. What do you mean, you are JUST a technology education teacher? We are exemplars of educational practice. We can combine the academic with the practical better than anyone else. We can provide real-world experiences that apply important concepts that students have learned in virtually every other school subject. We can manage a lab full of students, with each one doing something different. We can address the individual needs of students better than anyone else. We know how to keep track of inventory and order the multitude of supplies that are needed to carry out our programs. We know safe practices and how to teach them to young people. We are some of the most knowledgeable consumers in our community. We know what to do with our leisure time in service to others. We are more literate about the technological world than most anyone else around. We have both feet on the ground. We are not just technology teachers! And if we cannot be proud of what we do, then there is no way we can achieve true excellence.
At times, I feel that we are our own worst enemy because of our low self-concept. We are always looking for acceptance, sometimes putting the alliances we have made outside our field at a higher level than the regard we have for our own field. I am an Ohio State alumnus. This fall I was fortunate to win tickets to the Ohio State- Penn State football game in State College, Pennsylvania. Though I am not a Penn State fan, considering my age I have become more and more interested in Coach Joe Paterno, who celebrated his 81st birthday this past December. Which means, by the way, that he is old enough to be my father, if you permit me a small measure of exaggeration. Anyway, driving back to Millersville I listened to the post-game analysis on the radio after Penn State had lost. One of the commentators stated that he felt that Penn State played “not to lose” rather than “to win.” I began to wonder if this was pertinent to our field-do we work to win or work to not lose? There is a big difference, and the difference is attitudinal. Believing in ourselves and in our field is fundamental to achieving excellence. We are winners, and we will continue to win as long as we believe in ourselves! So, the first step toward excellence in my opinion is to celebrate the excellence that we have achieved to this point and be proud of it. When I visit the ITEA website, visit the ITEA booth at this Conference, read our publications, and participate in our association, I am overwhelmed by the progress that this profession has made since I entered it nearly 45 years ago. I am proud of what ITEA has accomplished, and I am darn proud to be a part of it. I hope that you are too.
The second step in our pursuit of excellence is to get the scholarly achievements of all those committed to the development of technological literacy out in the open and accessible by all. Our students, our scholars, and scholars from other fields cannot appreciate our excellence because they do not have convenient access to our historical resources. Most of the classics are out of print- they are simply very difficult to access. There has also been a cultural change among students. Even doctoral students have grown to expect that the resources they need should be available online and for free. Students who are enrolled in distance-learning programs often do not have access to historical resources at the remote locations in which they find themselves. But one thing is for certain-distance learning will be the means by which an ever- increasing number of professionals in our field are prepared.
So let’s get the resources needed to these students. Extending what Iim Flowers from Ball State and others have suggested, I propose that we all pitch in to get these out-of-print resources online. If each individual in our profession were to scan but a few pages of these historical documents, run them through optical character recognition software, and make them accessible via an online clearinghouse, we would have a rich, historical resource that is searchable electronically by word and phrase. We could do this with little or no cost, only an investment of time and some effort regarding copyright clearance. And let’s do this for scholars around the world, making these resources available for free with the hope that they will make their pertinent documents available to us at no charge in return. I am proud of our history and heritage, and I hope you share my feelings about this.
There has been a lot of concern about our research base, especially studies that demonstrate the viability of our discipline and its value to students. I agree with this concern, but short of a huge windfall of money to establish a center for research in our field, I think we have to look at alternatives-we simply do not have the horses to pull the load right now. Perhaps, unlike most other disciplines, the heart of our research base is the theses and dissertations that our graduate students do. Therefore, we must continue to expect exceptionally high-quality work from our graduate students as well as our undergrade, especially the creme de la creme represented by those we are honoring here this morning. We must also guide these students to support the research needs of our profession with their work and publish it. Already, through the efforts of Philip Reed of Old Dominion University, we have many of these resources available online.
I propose two goals in this respect. First, we must open the doors so that we can access the scholarship of other countries in the same manner that we have opened our doors to them. Every issue of the Journal of Technology Education has been available for well over a decade now to anyone in the world for free, thanks to the foresight of Mark Sanders, the founding Editor. The Journal of Industrial Teacher Education and the Journal of Technological Studies followed this example a short time later. I feel, therefore, that all issues of the International Journal of Design and Technology should be made accessible online at no charge. There is a plethora of research in that journal and others that would help us. second, I feel that the Journal of Engineering Education should be made available online at no charge. The National Academy of Engineering encouraged us to develop our Standards to serve all those concerned about developing technological literacy. We did this and made them available at no charge to anyone around the world. William Wulf, President of the Academy at the time, commended us for doing so. It seems that if both parties are committed to technological literacy, making their scholarship available to us as we have to them is only reasonable.
The third effort in our pursuit of excellence lies in how we nurture our human resources. There have been quite a number of studies published about the recruitment of teachers into our field. When we cut to the chase with these studies, we have learned that brochures, advertisements, posters, and other forms of media are not very effective. What really is effective is personal contact. That is why I asked you at the outset to think about who influenced you to enter this field of teaching. In most cases, it was a technology education teacher. However, very few teachers even think about recruiting their students to follow their example into a career in teaching. A number of years ago I analyzed some data in Virginia and found that it was more likely that a student in that state would become a professional football player than to begin collegiate studies in technology education. Yes, personal contact recruits new teachers. I feel that we are beginning to make some significant improvements in the number of women, and, to a lesser extent, minorities, who are teaching technology education. If technological literacy is truly for all Americans, we must continue to improve the demographics of our profession. We must also realize that there is interplay between our curriculum and those who are teaching it. I feel that we are starting to reach a tipping point in our curricula due to the leadership of women in our field-and things can only get better.
Though we need to recruit, we also need to be seriously concerned about the teachers who are already in the profession. We all know about teacher burnout, for it is evident in our profession as well as the teaching profession in general. Burnout needs our attention, but this morning I would like to focus on a different problem, and it is one of values. Those teachers who have a few years under their belts have seen some dramatic changes. When I began my teaching career, the main objective was to teach students how to work with tools and materials. That is why I decided to enter the field in the first place. Since graduating, I have witnessed many innovations- some became part of our regular practice and others disappeared almost immediately. Many required a change in fundamental values.
I am an innovator, and it all started one morning during the early part of my teaching career when my daughter pointed out that I had cut my neck shaving. I hurriedly stripped off the bloodied white dress shirt and put on another. I searched about for the tie I had on, the only one that went with the green plaid pants I was wearing, but could not find it. At the time, all male teachers wore dress shirts and ties. 1 decided, since 1 could not find my tie, to go without it. When I arrived at school I boldly presented myself, tieless and very smug, to the teachers sitting in the teachers’ lounge. Several had unusual looks on their faces, confirming to me that I was truly an innovator. Then one of them explained that I was indeed a trend setter for he had never seen anyone wear their necktie under their shirt.
Yes, innovation continued. Doctor Maley introduced the Maryland Plan, with the needs of the individual being the focus. Then there was the Industrial Arts Curriculum Project and an exclusive emphasis on manufacturing and construction. Then, a short time later, communication and transportation were added through the Jackson Mill Consortium. The profession rallied to make the changes necessary. The emphasis on tool skills as an end in itself began to fall into disrepute. Then there was the emphasis on the social impacts of technology. Then there was career education, industrial arts as prevocational education, and the “British invasion” with its emphasis on aesthetic design. Then came “modular technology education” and about the same time the idea of integrating mathematics and science with technology education. This was followed by a focus on engineering, to which we are giving most of our attention now.
The proposals for change over the years have been exciting and filled with new challenges, but sometimes it seemed as though no one knew where the train was going or where it was going to stop or what we would see when it did. Many teachers found that the values upon which they based their teaching were no longer shared by everyone. What they once thought was good and right and just and true and beautiful was being challenged. Some found that the dynamics of the times brought a sense of renewal and sound purpose, but others became overwhelmed and discouraged by the ongoing changes that kept occurring. What they had learned only a short time ago was not now consistent with the direction of the profession. They found themselves unable to provide to their students the same experiences that motivated them, the teachers, into the profession. They felt left behind.
Our standards have brought a sense of stability and credibility to our profession like never before. But having the standards and curriculum materials to back them up are nothing but paper if they are not adopted by the profession. We have to work with all teachers, not just the leaders of change who are already on the cutting edge, to help them integrate the standards. We have to help them reexamine their values and not force them into a teaching practice that is inconsistent with what they value. We need to help them figure out ways to realize the same positive outcomes with their students that motivated them to enter the profession. This will not happen here, at this Conference, for we are preaching to the choir. Though the development of the standards was formidable, along with the curriculum development being done with CATTS, it pales in comparison to the job we must do with teachers out there who are only minimally engaged in their profession. Most important, we absolutely cannot afford to write these teachers off and kick them to the curb. Our developing interest in integrating engineering concepts into our curricula is logical, admirable, and necessary. I have really enjoyed working with those involved with this effort. However, we have to proceed with caution, reflection, and forethought. There are a lot of teachers in our profession who got into our field via engineering. They knew they were interested in technology, and landed in engineering only to find frustration with the emphasis on theory over practice and the depth of understanding required in mathematics and science. They came into technology education to get out of engineering. The need for caution is obvious, and we must be careful as well that we do not create an elitist engineering subculture within our profession-a subculture that can only weaken our profession and potentially divide it. On the other hand, we must embrace those engineers who have become technology education teachers, and we must open our doors to those in engineering who want to collaborate with us. Let us not forget, though, that we are in charge of our profession and responsible for it.
Our interest in engineering has coincided with funding opportunities from the federal government and other organizations, and the need to increase our engineering and technological workforce. As we integrate engineering into our curricula, it is important to reflect upon how this work fits with our fundamental values as a profession and what might occur if the funding opportunities were not there and the demand for engineers waned as it has in the past. Based on the recent report of Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Harold Salzman of the Urban Institute, titled “Into the Eye of the Storm,” we are already preparing more engineers and scientists than there are jobs for them. We need to remember as well the research evidence that shows that most educational Innovations fail soon after the funding for them goes away.
When my son Lee was a youngster, he did not like green beans. I always tried to get him to eat at least one spoonful each meal they were served, which he did. After a while, though, he said very astutely, “Dad, I will eat the spoonful of green beans, but it will not make me like them.” Engineering must be integrated into our curricula, but it is not for everyone. At the other end of the spectrum, I am concerned about our programs in the inner-city schools. Technology education and other electives are being eliminated in these schools to make more time to try to help those students pass competency standards under No Child Left Behind. In many cases, the technology education program is the only incentive that the young person has to come to school. Some survive and manage to avoid being left behind, sweetening the statistics in the process. But others leave the school behind and drop out when their only incentive is taken away, exacting a terrible price on society down the road. In recent years our efforts have been directed toward the higher-end students, the students of those who control our political system, the people who often have never set foot in an inner-city school. I wonder what would happen to our status if we promoted the value of our field in keeping students in school. Let’s not narrow down the market of the students we serve.
The fourth area in our pursuit of excellence that I am passionate about is in regard to our curriculum standards. The standards have been a boon to our profession. However, standards in any field are a work in progress and are never finished. It is time, therefore, to begin work on the next revision. I hope that the aesthetic component of design will be included in our standards. Though form follows function, the form or beauty of a product is a very close second. The appearance of a product is often more important than its function in the eyes of the consumer. To try to keep separate the aesthetics of design from the engineering aspects of design reinforces problems that have plagued American manufacturers for decades. Engineers do not like to work with industrial designers, and industrial designers do not like to work with engineers. We have an obligation as emissaries of technological literacy to break this mold and to provide our students with an integrative experience, just as we have done with our earlier programs. Doing so also enables us to get a return on the tremendous investment that we put into the British Design and Technology approach over a period of two decades.
Fifth in our pursuit of excellence, I feel that we must always assure that we are making a unique contribution to the education of our citizenry. I feel that our unique contribution is in the hands- on, problem-solving experiences that we provide to our students, using real tools, materials, and systems, and meeting the interests and needs of every student. Though virtually every other discipline within the school teaches about some technological concepts, we are the only ones that truly “do” technology. At first glance, it would appear that this would be consistent with what engineers believe. But our eyes were opened with an article by Annette Rose in the Fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Technology Education. As long as the experiences we provide to our students are valued and unique, we will continue to be exemplars of success and excellence. If, however, technological literacy and technological competence are measured with a paper-and-pencil test, the wolf will be knocking at our door.
Allow me to summarize the five points about which I feel passionate in our pursuit of excellence. First, we need to improve our self-concept as a profession and be proud of ourselves. Second, the scholarship and research needs to be openly shared among all those committed to developing technological literacy. Third, we need to nurture our human resources through recruitment, retention, and revitalization. Fourth, we need to begin revising our standards and integrate the aesthetic component of design back into our curriculum in the process. Fifth, we need to assure that we are always making a unique contribution to the overall educational endeavor, recognizing that doing so will always be a moving target.
It has been 44 years since I changed my curriculum from engineering to industrial arts. Now you know the rest of the story. When that occurred, I was welcomed into a caring family of professionals who have watched over me, supported me, and provided endless opportunities. In my early years I did wonder if I had made the right career decision. In reflecting back on all those years, there is no doubt in my mind about my decision. Engineers can leave their legacy in buildings and bridges, scientists in the discovery of natural laws, and accountants in financial systems. Nothing compares, though, to a legacy left with the people with whom we work as students, teachers, colleagues, and mentors. And doing all that work in the informal setting of a lab puts a very unique spin to it all that few others can enjoy.
If you have but a small part of the wonderful feeling I have in working with people in this profession, you are very fortunate, indeed. At the outset, I asked you to think about those who influenced your lives and thank them. Now, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to be in this profession and to share my thoughts with you this morning. I also mentioned that excellence required passion and passion is love. I can assure that the love that you have for this profession will be returned many times over. Let it embrace you, and share it with others!
Jim LaPorte delivers his memorable speech in Salt Lake City.
LaPorte receives a standing ovation at the end of his remarks.
James E. LaPorte is a professor on the faculty of Millersville University in the Department of Industry and Technology. He can be reached via email at james.laporte@ millersville.edu.
Copyright International Technology Education Association Sep 2008
(c) 2008 Technology Teacher, The. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.